Why Journalism Ethics and Objectivity Matter

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Recently, a journalism student from the University of Maryland interviewed me about journalism ethics. He asked probing and insightful questions that made me really think about the subject, so I've decided to post his queries and my answers here.

What Is the Importance of Ethics in Journalism?

Because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the press in this country is not regulated by the government. But that makes journalistic ethics all the more important, for the obvious reason that with great power comes great responsibility. One need only look to cases where journalistic ethics have been breached — for example, fabulists like Stephen Glass or the 2011 phone-hacking scandal in Britain — to see the implications of unethical news practices. News outlets must regulate themselves, not only to maintain their credibility with the public but also because they run the risk of the government attempting to do so.

What Are the Biggest Ethical Dilemmas?

There's often a lot of discussion about whether journalists should be objective or tell the truth as if these were contradictory goals. When it comes to discussions like these, a distinction must be made between issues in which a quantifiable kind of truth can be found and issues in which there are gray areas.

For instance, a reporter might do a story surveying statistics about the death penalty in order to discover whether it acts as a deterrent. If the statistics show dramatically lower homicide rates in states with the death penalty, then that might seem to indicate that it is indeed an effective deterrent or vice versa.

On the other hand, is the death penalty just? That's a philosophical issue that's been debated for decades, and the questions it raises can't really be answered by objective journalism. For a journalist, finding the truth is always the ultimate goal, but that can be elusive.

Has the Concept of Objectivity Changed?

In recent years, the idea of objectivity has been derided as a fixture of the so-called legacy media. Many of the digital pundits argue that true objectivity is impossible and therefore, journalists should be open about their beliefs and biases as a way of being more transparent with their readers. I disagree with this view, but it's certainly one that has become influential, especially with newer online news outlets.

Do Journalists Prioritize Objectivity?

I think objectivity is still valued at most news outlets, particularly for the so-called hard news sections of newspapers or websites. People forget that much of a daily newspaper consists of opinion in editorials, arts and entertainment reviews, and in the sports section. But I think most editors and publishers, and readers for that matter, still value having on impartial voice when it comes to hard news coverage. I think it's a mistake to blur the lines between objective reporting and opinion, but that's certainly happening, most notably on the cable news networks.

What Is the Future of Objectivity in Journalism?

I think the idea of impartial reporting will continue to have value. Certainly, the anti-objectivity proponents have made inroads, but I don't think objective news coverage is going to disappear anytime soon.